Tuesday, 15 July 2014

They can't read ... so why give prisoners books?

Authors holding up the books they would send to prisoners - demonstrating opposite Downing Street, 27.6.14.
Around 44% of the prison population are deemed to be dyslexic which means many of them have had difficulties accessing books since childhood. So why give them books to read? Why give books to children who can't read? What a waste of time.
I was a Special Needs teacher for 25 years and have worked with hundreds and hundreds of people from ages five to adult who have struggled to master reading. All of them wanted books - to look at, to have read to them, to hold, to love, to admire and to help them become independent readers.

Mark Haddon and Ruth Padel 

In November 2013 The Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, banned the sending of book parcels to prisoners, initially saying that books are a perk and privilege they must earn. But after a massive outcry including a campaign lead by the Howard League for Penal Reform and English PEN involving some of our most influential writers, it was then stated that -  drugs are smuggled in through book parcels - and -
well, prisoners can't read anyway, so why do they need books?!?
Well that just waved a massive red rag in the face of we authors.

The campaign to persuade Mr Grayling to reverse this misguided policy is gathering momentum. On June 27th 2014, a group of authors including myself, Sir David Hare, Dame Margaret Drabble, Mark Haddon, Ruth Padel, A.L. Kennedy, Sarah Waters, Rachel Billington and Kathy Lette, joined with Francis Crook, Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform and Cat Lucas from English PEN, along with other supporters, to meet the Shadow Minister for Justice, Sadiq Khan, at Westminster to discuss our protest. Mr Khan pointed out that there have been massive cutbacks in prison libraries which means most prisoners have little chance to obtain books. One prisoner he had visited recently in 'separation' had in his cell a prayer mat, a Koran and a Stephen King novel - the novel was given to him by a Warder who just felt sorry for him. Prisoners, including Young Offenders, are spending more time in their cells than ever before with almost no access to books.

There are plenty of books which would be suitable for prisoners with reading difficulties, as I pointed out. We authors are writing them and publishers such as Barrington Stoke are actively extending their catalogue, let alone all the graphic novels and even books without words but with high interest value, which would be perfectly accessible to all prisoners. Many children's authors and Y.A. authors are writing books which would be eminently suitable. We all agreed, together with Mr Khan, that having books in the cells is not a 'perk or a privilege' as Mr Grayling advocates - but an essential informal educational tool which actively works towards rehabilitation.
 As David Hare commented, "If this is an incentive system, who has won the prize of more books?"

After our meeting with Mr Khan our group moved to the site opposite Downing Street to continue with our demonstration. Writers were interviewed by the media who were well represented.

 A small group then took a letter to hand in to the Prime Minister to draw his attention to our ongoing Books for Prisoners campaign and to ask for his support.

Our letter to Mr Cameron pointed out that in April 2014 we requested a meeting with Mr Grayling to discuss our concerns and "we were extremely disappointed that Mr Grayling did not agree to our meeting."....."We strongly urge you to reverse this harmful policy at the earliest opportunity."

As a parent, a former teacher, a children's author and most importantly, a human being who simply cannot imagine being locked up 23 hours a day without books, paper and pens - I am urging you to follow this campaign, support it wherever you can and help everyone involved to persuade the government to reverse this counter-productive policy.
We need more books in prisons.
AUTHORS - You could help by donating copies of your books to a wonderful new initiative at Wormwood Scrubs where book rooms for prisoners are being set up by volunteers.
To find out more, email Victoria at  Give a Book : victoria@giveabook.org.uk



JO said...

My stepdaughter works in prisons as a psychologist and is equally angry about this - it's Grayling playing politics (believing the electorate want a flog 'em approach before an election) and nothing to do with rehabilitation, or even decent humanity.

Sue Purkiss said...

Well done, Miriam - this is a terrific cause. I worked with young offenders for some years. There was actually a lot of money spent then on resources to improve literacy - but I agree with you that collections of books of the kind you mention - plus Quick Reads - would be a great place to start. But of course books should be a resource for all prisoners - it's not just a question of functional literacy, important as that is.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Yes Sue - and any other reminders of the books that would help prisoners with reading difficulties - please put them up and I'll compile a list and send it on - Quick Reads, Barrington Stoke - they're totally brilliant.

Sue Hyams said...

Great post, Miriam, and thanks for highlighting this issue. Let's hope the government sees sense!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for the post and the contact for sending books!

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post, Miriam! Like libraries closing in schools and towns, this cause too needs lots of highlighting and all the support it can get.

Stroppy Author said...

Look at some of the other publishers of reluctant reader books: Ransome, Readzone, A&C Black - many of the books for teenagers in their lists would be suitable for prisoners. Happy to donate some of mine.

Leslie Wilson said...

This is such an important issue! We lock up more people than any other country in Europe, and it doesn't prevent re-offending. I feel this is a question of desire for revenge, frankly 'we will be seen to be tough on criminals.' But would people rather have criminals rehabilitated and helped to a different career, or punish them and have their houses burgled again? How can you learn to overcome dyslexia without books, anyway? Being unable to read is a significant factor in alienation and social exclusion, whichis what makes people offend.. oh dear, it is far too hot for this, I shall boil over. Thanks for blogging on this topic, Miriam!